Noma and the Emperor’s New Clothes

Times food critic’s damning condemnation of the “unsettling” atmosphere and “haughty disposition” on display at the Copenhagen restaurant could easily resonate with readers who have had enough of this particular episode of fine dining

Yesterday an article came out in the Times of London in which Farrah Storr chronicled her recent trip to Noma. She hated it. 

In 2021, Noma scooped up the award for world’s best restaurant once again. The establishment, headed by the eternally-foraging René Redzepi, has gone from strength to strength since it opened in 2003. 

People swoon over the idea of going to Noma. It has become proverbially difficult to get on the waiting list. Once you do, and if you survive the wait, you will have to shell out about 5,000 kroner per head.

For many, it’s a month’s rent gone in an evening, but surely it’s worth it? The experience of a lifetime can’t be counted in mundane currency, can it?

Storr problems
According to Farrah Storr, the experience at Noma is not just disappointing, it is downright awful. She describes being ushered into the inner sanctum of the restaurant’s current site near the Copenhagen Opera House.

“The unsettling feeling gathered pace as we moved further inside. For a start every server looked the same: wan individuals with wide scowls and the haughty disposition of a freshly-elected local councillor. The chefs also looked identical, with thick muscular arms covered in tattoos of flora and fauna,” she wrote.

“Then there was the eerie soundtrack: the sound of a dozen different chefs shouting “Yes” in unison each time a dish was ready to go out – it was fun at first, but an hour into lunch it felt like aural torture.”

This sounds suspiciously similar to the acclaimed 2022 film ‘The Menu’, in which the affluent guests of a luxury restaurant soon find out they are more involved in the menu than they might presume. The kitchen staff, all dressed identically, shout “Yes Chef!” in unison every time the head chef played by Ralph Fiennes – whose character bears similarities to Redzepi – claps his hands.

Among other things, the film explores the clear class divide between the guests and the staff at the restaurant. Like Storr’s article, ‘The Menu’ draws attention to the cult-like feeling that Noma and other restaurants can cultivate.

I’m sending this back …
Beyond the slightly unsettling ambience of the place, Storr painted an unflattering picture of the food: “When I left some of my reindeer brain custard inside the skull in which it was served (as did the table behind us) – not because it was essentially brain juice, but because it was chalky and unpleasant – the waitress looked angry as she went to lift my plate. ‘Not comfortable with offal?’ she asked.”

When Storr left a cup of tea (whose taste she compared to an ashtray) unfinished, she again provoked the ire of the waitress: ‘Well . . .’ she exhaled. ‘Could you at least appreciate it?’ I think it was a rhetorical question. Not for the first time were we made to feel that we simply didn’t ‘get’ Noma.”

The idea of ‘getting’ food on an intellectual level is a hallmark of the new style of luxury restaurant. It is no longer enough for food to be exquisite: it must also be food for thought.

How much is too much?
This is taken to another level at Alchemist, another Copenhagen restaurant with two Michelin stars that has menus ranging from 6,700 to 14,900 kroner.

Courses, which include a chicken’s claw inside a metal cage and a pigeon hung by a noose, are accompanied by moralistic speeches about the maltreatment of animals, so your food comes with a side-order of guilt.

Surely there are better places to campaign for animals’ rights than an astronomically expensive restaurant with only enough seats for 15 people. 

After all, these restaurants are status-symbols more than anything else and, as such, they pander to the same capitalistic principles that make the appalling treatment of animals acceptable.

The new guard
Noma’s ethic of using locally-sourced ingredients is not only commendable, it has also been revolutionary in fine dining. The restaurant, in fact, has made such an impact that you could point to it as being the prime mover in the changing of the guard that has taken place in haute-cuisine since the beginning of the new millennium.

Approaching the new century, France had a total monopoly on fine dining. French cuisine was emulated the world over, and most restaurants with a Michelin star were based on the French model. Complexity and luxury were seen as positives.

Today all this has changed: good, locally-sourced ingredients and simplicity are the mainstay of cutting-edge restaurants. More traditional ‘French-style’ restaurants have come to be seen as stuffy and retrograde. 

However, a certain snobbishness seems to have crept back into the fine dining experience, although in a different manner than the old. At any normal restaurant worth its salt, if a customer leaves the food unfinished it is cause for concern. At Noma, if you leave a little reindeer brain uneaten, it is your own pathetically unsophisticated palate at fault. 

There is also something profoundly hypocritical about a restaurant that the vast majority of the world’s population will never be able to access putting insane prices on food that you can find in a hedgerow down the road.

Coda for Noma?
At the beginning of this fine dining revolution you might have argued that Noma was helping make food more democratic: something everyone could potentially do at home. The real effect has been the opposite.

Noma has influenced other restaurants to be more expensive and more pretentious, while turning people off traditional fare. 

In light of parodies in films like ‘The Menu’ and reports of a grim atmosphere from clients, along with the announcement that the restaurant will be closing by the end of 2024, will we see a new reincarnation of Rene Redzepi’s lifework? Or are people beginning to see through the emperor’s new clothes?